Dawson’s Fall: A Novel by Roxana Robinson

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Now he’s back in another kind of conflict, the alarms and confusions of daily life.

While this novel is fiction, in the preface we are told that the author used authentic content, such as letters, diary entries and published sources of her own family, her great grandparents in particular. Her discomfort in the racism within’ her family is noted, but to ignore the attitudes of the times would be a disservice to the truth, especially of the hardships faced in the fight for equality. Both Frank and Sarah Dawson have thoughts that are easy to judge, such as the ‘distastefulness of mix racing’ Sarah feels. But then you have to sit with that thought, surrounded by the ignorance of the times, these are taught attitudes.

The novel opens with a nightmare Frank Dawson has just awaken from. Despite his wife Sarah’s intuitive nature, and the troubling feeling that remains, he can’t put much stock into dreams, he has enough pressing issues in his daily life than to allow a stranger in his sleep to torment him. As editor and part owner of the Charleston News and Courier his voice is his tool, his opinions strong and not always popular in the south where the war refuses to remain in the past. Death threats aren’t unusual for a man who tries to give black people political power. In fact, his ‘Southern roots’ certainly are in question, being England born can he really be one of them? Maybe he isn’t even really a Captain either! He loves his Charleston, and he wants it to thrive, but to understand the anger we must travel further back.

It is 1861, young Sarah Morgan is nineteen-years old and the ‘war is scattering her family’. The south doesn’t want the north interfering in its affairs, and the anti-slavery perspective isn’t one the south shares, after all they believe they ‘take care of their slaves’ and that they’d be helpless and lost without such care. Fate is about to turn against her family, with the war taking her brothers and threatening every southerner.

In Southampton, Englishman Frank Dawson stands on the deck of the Nashville (a steamer, once a mail ship to be fitted for war)  as one of the crew. Unlike the other men, Dawson has a fine education, can speak four languages, read music and has a gentleman’s manners. Certainly he doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the rougher men. Little can one imagine he will rise through the ranks of the Confederate navy. In America, Dawson’s ‘network of friends’ and his intelligence, connections will teach him about the south. Here, he will support his brothers in arms against the north. From the water, he will turn to the land joining into the army. Sarah in the meantime taps into her own shocking nature, finding it necessary to arm herself with a pistol. They are under siege and must run from Baton Rouge with whatever they can carry. Chaos reigns, everything is in ruins, as are the people after the shelling. Sarah is fierce, and often the cries in her diary are, “Oh if I were a man!”  because then she could fight off these hypocritcal Yankees, who are destroying everything people like her family have worked for, killing off all the men! He family gets smaller and smaller with each death. It is a world now of devastated women and children.

At the end of war, Dawson has been wounded, desperate for money and a job he soon has an offer to work for the Examiner, but soon Dawson  meets B. F.  Riordon, with whom he would later create a newspaper with. But first, as the assistant editor for the Charleston Mercury his views on the Fourteenth amendment don’t sit well with the bosses, staunch supporters of Confederacy, not one’s to ‘swallow’ the end of their empire and embrace the future. With the paper failing, it’s an opportunity for Dawson and Riordon to run a paper with truth and promote their south.

Soon, Frank Dawson and Sarah Morgan’s paths merge when Jem, Sarah’s brother, is seriously injured during an ‘incident’ and Dawson rushes to be at his side. So too, does his love blossom for Sarah. One small hitch, Dawson has a wife already but one who is gravely ill. After her passing, the two bond over literature but how to convince Sarah to marry him, particularly when she has no interest in doing ‘what is expected’ of women? The two begin to write each other, and I’m guessing the letters were authentic, oh what a dying art!

You know they marry, or else how could there be this very book about the author’s great grandparents? Dawson’s fall could come from anywhere, his progressive views (such as his stance on anti-lynching), the stories he prints that tell the truth about crimes by condemning always what is wrong, even if it means exposing ‘white South Carolinians’, particularly in the case of the Hamburg Militiamen massacre. History sidenote: Hamburg was an all black Republican community who had members in the militia, which were formed to safeguard said communities. Research the Hamburg Massacre, it will explain the gravity of the situation and why siding with the black community infuriated citizens. There was courage in Dawson and Riordon chosing to speak in defense of the militia, the truth can be dangerous! Lynchings, racism, rapes, war… this novel deals with seriously taboo subjects, history rears its ugly head.

Then there is the sleazy neighbor Dr. Thomas Mcdow who seduces Dawson and Sarah’s beautiful, young, Swedish governess  Hélène. A man with murderous intentions who feels Dawson is interfering in his every plan, threatening to ruin him. Not that I particularly liked Hélène but I imagine being 22 and working as a sort of servant, though maybe higher on the totem pole than the other help, she’d be hungry for love, a husband. Sure, she was lucky to be a part of a respectable, important family but the young still have their fanciful ideas and are ripe for certain worldly wolves. What will it mean for Frank and Sarah?

There is a lot happening in Dawson’s Fall, looking back into your family history can be crushingly heartbreaking but it’s only because you are on the outside and know the end. As in all lives, there are sweet spots despite the tragic curtain fall. For fans of historical fiction, there is quite a bit of the past to chew on, a lot of shame as well. It seems Frank changed with the times and tried to be just, and that says a lot when it’s with great risk you go against popular thought. Morality is a strange beast, there are certain wrongs against nature that no amount of justification can excuse. History isn’t pretty, for one family war took and gave in equal measure but sometimes it is those closer to home that can seal your doom.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton Books

 

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The Forgiving Kind by Donna Everhart

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Daddy said the land’s soaked into me the way blood soaks into wood, a permanent, everlasting mark. Three years ago, when I was nine, he placed an old willow branch into my hands, and showed me how to do what he’d been doing since I can remember, something he calls “divining water”. Turned out I could do this too.

It is the 1950’s in North Carolina and Martha “Sonny” Creech works side by side with her father and brothers on their cotton farm. No one loves the land as much as Sonny and her father, despite the fact that most girls are meant for ‘softer’ more lady-like skills. Living on the cotton farm with her brothers Ross and Trent (a teen with a wild streak who hates farming), Sonny and her father have a special bond, both soaked to their marrow with their love of the land. It had all felt perfect, as long as they could farm and be a family until tragedy strikes and her father dies. That’s when Frank Fowler falls over her family like a dark shadow, with an offer that to the Creech siblings feels more like a deal with the devil.

Why can’t her Mamma see the real Frank, rather than the sly, charming man he pretends to be in her presence. How could her brother Trent be so accepting and chummy with him? No one understands Sonny more than her best friend Daniel, unlike the other boys, ‘different’, smart as a whip with big dreams of one day being a director. Such fancy ideals aren’t to be tolerated in a town like theirs, and Frank will bully every sign of weakness he witnesses in Daniel and the Creech siblings. For her mother’s sake, Sonny has to try to keep the peace, Frank is their salvation, their only chance to escape ruin. Daniel in all his wisdom, with the experience of knowing men’s desires watching his own mother as she entertains them, understands exactly what Frank wants from Sonny’s mamma. Surely her mother would never sully her father’s memory by taking up with a tyrant like Frank? What can a twelve-year-old girl do but obey her elders, as she was raised to?

Both Daniel and Sonny suffer the cruelty of other children for their odd ways yet in Daniel’s case, it’s the adults that are the biggest threat. For Sonny it’s her water diving skills, a gift she inherited, one she shared and was nurtured by her father. As her peers mock and call her ‘water witch’, her attempts at finding water hurt her more when Frank derides her for thinking her ‘gift’ isn’t real anymore than her father’s was. She’s just a girl in his eyes, and girls have no power, don’t belong taking part in any ‘man’s work’. There is an undercurrent of anything feminine as weakness, particularly if witnessed in boys. I also felt early in the novel when Daniel meets his sister at the bus stop, eyeing Sarah’s clothes Sonny starts to think about what it means to wear tight things and have a ‘reputation’, which absolutely expresses the thinking of the 1950’s, still true today to an extent.The author says a lot about our culture back then, just in that word “reputation”, a brand a small town girl could never wash off. When Frank isn’t bullying her siblings and best friend he spends his time insulting her father and how he handled his farming, a man who is no longer alive to defend himself.  It isn’t long before he insinuates himself even deeper into her family, sitting at their dinner table but Sonny could never foretell the evil that beats in his bigoted heart. His calculated schemes culminate into an act so vile that keeping secrets for her mother’s sake may cost them their very humanity.

This is a dark, heavy novel that explores silence and power, those who have it and those who don’t. There is nothing so helpless as being a child, at the mercy of the grown ups, your very first leaders. Second to that vulnerable state, being a woman. At the start, the Creech children know a father who is tender, who teaches them values and is hard only when necessary because farming requires attention to detail and hard-work. A father who loves his children and treats his beloved wife with respect, a man his children can be proud of. All of that changes with his death, and with three children to feed, a farm to save and very few options their mother has to accept the only deal on offer. That’s how the world sometimes works for us, backed into a corner and you do what you can to survive. Often it’s too late when you discover the truth of the person you thought was your salvation. Sonny’s mother and Daniel’s both lack choices, and let’s think about Daniel, he is fodder for Frank because he lacked the protection of a father, or siblings. He also carries the burden of his mother’s choices, her alcholism (in the 1950’s for a woman to drink was considered far more deviant than a man who was a drunk), shouldering shame for a father who walked out when he was a baby and rather than empathy finds only contempt.

Too, the times have an enormous influence on our decisions and options. Women weren’t exactly in full control of their destiny in the 1950’s anymore than children were.  Anyone who was ‘different’ or didn’t fall into line was more than just ridiculed, makes you understand why certain people were chomping at the bit to escape their small towns. Not every citizen accepted bigotry and bullying, nor were as small minded as Frank but when you could find your life at threat, the safety of your family, you knew to keep your mouth shut tight and if you didn’t, you would pay. Some people thrive on love, others on rage and hatred but it all catches up to you, doesn’t it? I think we ‘modern folks’ tend to judge people of the past under the safety and freedom of our own times. No one is going to beat you to near death for defending someone or having an opinion for the most part, unfortunately back then they could and the those meant to protect could be a part of the corruption. This novel exposes the uglier side of a small town in the 1950’s. Read the Author’s Note at the end, it’s worth your time. Disturbing and honest, yes read it.

Publication Date:January 29, 2019

Kensington Books